Composition of place

Composition of place

In Brief

Stephen begins his Shakespeare talk in Scylla and Charybdis by inviting his listeners to imagine a scene from the playwright's life. "It is this hour of a day in mid June," he says, just like the present moment in Dublin, but the year is 1601 and the place is the south bank of the Thames in greater London. Throwing out vivid details, he thinks, "Local colour. Work in all you know. Make them accomplices." The method in his madness becomes clear a moment later: "Composition of place. Ignatius Loyola, make haste to help me!" Such setting of an imagined scene, using the powers of the senses to heighten mental awareness, was the foundation for meditative practices devised by the founder of the Jesuit order, Ignatius Loyola. Stephen follows Loyola's prescription by beginning his prolonged meditation on Shakespeare with the setting of a scene, and as the talk proceeds he returns often to the principle of creating vivid sensory pictures to engage the minds of his listeners.

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In the early 1520s Loyola made a retreat at an abbey on a Catalonian mountain where the Benedictine monks introduced him to certain techniques of spiritual meditation, and he began composing, in Spanish, the devotional manual that would be published in Latin translation in 1548 as Spiritual Exercises. This work recommends 30 days of silent, solitary pondering of religious themes: events in the life of Jesus, the Savior's crucifixion and resurrection, the loving forgiveness of human sin manifested in God's sacrifice of his Son. The purpose is to bring the contemplator into a state of closeness with God—a quasi-mystical direct contact with the ineffable—by pondering important theological issues and seeking to align one's will more nearly with the divine will.

Despite this highly abstract goal, many of the exercises begin quite mundanely with "application of the senses." They recommend taking a passage from the gospels, imagining the scene in great concrete detail, concentrating on its sights, sounds, smells, textures, and even tastes, and dwelling quietly with the feelings and thoughts that arise in response. Immersed in the physical reality of the event, the meditator finds a corporeal foundation for intellectual and spiritual activity. Gifford quotes an especially relevant passage from the First Exercise, item 47: "The first prelude is a composition, seeing the place. Here it is to be observed that in the contemplation or meditation of a visible object as in contemplating Christ our Lord, Who is visible, the composition will be to see with the eye of the imagination the corporeal place where the object I wish to contemplate is found. I say the corporeal place, such as the Temple or the mountain where Jesus Christ is found..."

The Spiritual Exercises fed into various streams of European culture: the revival of Catholic spirituality initiated by the counter-Reformation in the mid-16th century; the writings of John Donne and other English "metaphysical" poets of the 17th century; the pedagogical methods of Jesuit high schools and colleges in the 19th century. In that last category, the impact of Loyola's style of meditation is powerfully represented in the third part of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man when a Jesuit priest puts the fear of God into Stephen Dedalus and his classmates on a religious retreat. The terrifying pictures of Hell conjured up by the priest's sermons do not conform to Loyola's recommended subject matters: instead of contemplating Jesus' sufferings to gain awareness of God's abundant mercies they require the boys to ponder the eternal tortures awaiting sinners' poor spiritual choices. The method, however, is unmistakably Loyolan: set a scene, rub your audience's nose, eyes, ears, tongue, and skin in it, and set them on a cognitive path that will bring them back to God.

Stephen appears deeply committed to this method of winning over an audience, albeit for non-devotional purposes. Asking them to call to mind a June day like the one they are presently in, he evokes the sight of the flag flying in front of the Globe theater, the growls of "The bear Sackerson" in the bearbaiting pit next door, the rough textures and vertiginous sensations of "The canvasclimbers who sailed with Drake," the smells and tastes of their sausages as they stand crowded in among the groundlings. Shakespeare walks by swans along the Thames on his way to the theater, watching a mother busily herd her offspring into the rushes. The actor playing the ghost in Hamlet steps onto the stage, "a wellset man with a bass voice." All the senses are engaged in this brief prelude to Stephen's Shakespeare meditations.

After the introductory scene-setting Stephen's thoughts become more abstract, but he returns again and again to concrete sensory details: "She bore his children and she laid pennies on his eyes to keep his eyelids closed when he lay on his deathbed'; "poor Wat, sitting in his form, the cry of hounds, the studded bridle and her blue windows"; "a boldfaced Stratford wench who tumbles in a cornfield a lover younger than herself"; "Head, redconecapped, buffeted, brineblinded"; "Hot herringpies, green mugs of sack, honeysauces, sugar of roses, marchpane, gooseberried pigeons, ringocandies"; "Why did he not leave her his best bed if he wished her to snore away the rest of her nights in peace?"; "loosing her nightly waters on the jordan"; "His eyes watched it, lowlying on the horizon, eastward of the bear, as he walked by the slumberous summer fields at midnight returning from Shottery and from her arms." A large number of these vivid details concern Anne Hathaway, whose adultery is central to Stephen's argument about Shakespeare.

Loyola's insistence on the importance of involving the human sensorium in spiritual practice provided one of the key weapons in the counter-Reformation's defense of Catholic practices (e.g., transubstantiation, omnipresent paintings and sculptures, lush music, clouds of incense, crucifixes with bloody Christs hanging from them) against Protestant insistence on spare surroundings and pure internality. It is also of a piece with the interest in lived physical experience that Stephen defines as Aristotelian, against the otherworldly abstractions of Platonism. His vivid pictures are not only an attempt to engage his listeners' imaginations. They are also a rejection of their inclination to respond to art as if all that matters is "ideas, formless spiritual essences."

JH 2021
Title page of the 1st edition of Ignatius Loyola's Spiritual Exercises (1548). Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Matthias Grünewald's The Crucifixion, oil on panel ca. 1515, held in the Unterlinden Museum. Source: Wikimedia Commons.